The Sun, Edvard Munch (c. 1911)

How to Live a Fulfilling Life, According to Philosophy Break Subscribers

I asked Philosophy Break’s 12,000+ subscribers what makes life worth living. Their answers, coming in from the Netherlands to Nepal and many countries in-between, represent a goldmine of wisdom and life experience.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  April 2024


Last week, when sharing 6 major philosophies for living, I asked Philosophy Break’s 12,000+ subscribers the following questions:

  • What’s your philosophy for life?
  • What lessons have your experiences taught you about meaning, happiness, and fulfillment?
  • And, most importantly: if you had to put forward 3 key ingredients for a fulfilled life, what would they be, and why?

The answers I received were wonderfully insightful. Keeping their collective wisdom to myself would be the act of a greedy tyrant, and so in this article I hand the reins over to the brilliant, thoughtful Philosophy Break readership…

I haven’t been able to feature all responses, nor the entirety of the responses that do feature. However, I’ve done my best to select a representative sample, and honor the nuance and context of the original responses as much as possible.

I hope you enjoy reading each other’s brilliant words. If you’re not yet part of the Philosophy Break newsletter community, you can sign up free here. Thank you for being so thoughtful week after week.

(Some of you requested I share my own personal philosophy, too — I do so, briefly and uncertainly, at the end.)

Now, over to you on what makes life worth living!

Mary (Netherlands): “To be true to oneself is, for me, the most freeing and exhilarating place to be…”

I have found the Stoic — and Taoist — belief of accepting that which we have no power to change has made life a lot less stressful. It frees me to use energy for the things that matter to me and which I do have agency over.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, a friend of mine got very distressed on my behalf; she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t scared.

But I could not turn back time and change the diagnosis and feeling scared wasn’t the best state of mind to be in. I had to accept and work with the process of dealing with it and whatever outcome resulted.

I also find personal comfort in deciding there is no real meaning in or purpose to my place in this life. Why should this planet in particular host the lifeforms we see in action every day? Who knows? And why should I in particular be so important as to play a pivotal role in whatever ‘chess game’ this is?

I can make my own meaning, a recognition of what makes my heart sing, what makes me want to get up in the morning and embrace the day, but I cannot envisage my level of importance in someone/thing else’s scheme. Who or whatever that is…

The three key ingredients make me think of a conversation in Jane Austin’s Emma, where Emma says to another character, a Miss Bates: ‘the difficulty is that you will be limited to only three things’….!

My ingredients do come from my life experiences, a learnt awareness of what brings meaning, happiness and fulfillment. But which shall I choose?

Well, I have learnt not to be overly concerned about the need to please others in order to be accepted into a ‘group’, because that need is an endless, but empty and never really fulfilling, requirement.

I value space and time on my own but also like being part of small communities, as small communities often ignore the issues that are declared important by ‘those at the top’ and concentrate on the things that do matter. There is real scope to get to know and support each other.

I listen to the feeling that occurs when involved in what gives me joy — and to the feelings that occur when ‘pushed into a corner’ by someone else’s need to control a situation. I trust in these to let me know what I need to attach to and detach from.

All of these things allow for me to live an authentic life, to follow this quote from Cicero: Esse Quam Videri (‘To be rather than seem to be…’)

And to be true to oneself is, for me, the most freeing and exhilarating place to be.

Eric (USA): “A person sleepwalks the planet until they can discover a map to navigate by, and create a sense of self as a project, while putting one’s purpose into action… peace of heart, peace of mind, seeking the true path with generosity of spirit…”

There are four pillars to my philosophy of life:

  1. The combined Logical/empiricism of Russell, the Vienna circle, and Wittgenstein’s genius
  2. Zen Buddhism
  3. Stoicism
  4. The existentialism of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

How to distill this amalgamation into three elements?

I shall try…

1. The need to create an accurate map of the world, tested against logic and empirical means — to navigate the uncertain world without the encumbrances of mysticism, and religiosity that has been such a bane to humankind. I seek principles of objective (to the extent humanly possible) truth.

And by truth, I mean an accurate map of the world in all its facets, and changing rivulets.

A striving not for a comfortable set of lies, not for a banal set of truths sure to placate the anxieties of existence, but of an accurate and often painful map of truths wherever that may lead.

2. The need to live in the moment, in full possession of oneself, focused on what one can control, and a radical acceptance of everything one cannot accept, so that one may live with equipoise, and equanimity.

How to live in the midst of extreme uncertainty, after one creates the map from one’s logical empirical quest? And the recognition that that map is always provisional, subject to change? One must have courage, before one can have peace of heart and mind.

…An awake soul must be fully present, here, now, and be willing to accept reality as it is, to the extent that one cannot change it. Death — what do we make of it? Acceptance.

A striving for the acceptance of all things outside our control — the amor fati of Nietzsche — and the peace of mind and peace of heart that come with this acceptance, this gratitude, this focus.

3. The need to live according to the dictates of one’s conscience, and consciousness. The word authenticity is overused, as it lacks a precise definition. But to be driven by the excavation of the self, the discovery of the self, the creation of the self-in-becoming, and all that this entails for meaning, purpose, and action.

A striving to not merely understand the world and one’s existence in it, a striving not merely for a sense of being as a “self”, but a necessary striving for a self-created life as a project toward meaning…

In a single sentence: a person sleepwalks the planet until they can discover a map to navigate by, and create a sense of self as a project, while putting one’s purpose into action.

Moreover, it doesn’t have to be a higher purpose or or a higher power, although that can be wonderful. Living genuinely requires putting the ideal into the real.

What did Kierkegaard say, in reference to his criticism of Hegel? Something along the lines of, “most of philosophy is the creation of a grand castle to the sky, while living in a hut beside it.”

Words to that effect. How far we fall from putting our ideas into practice. How far the real is from the ideal.

K. is spot on. We need to live our map, and our self-in-becoming as an essential element.

A distillation even further: peace of heart, peace of mind, seeking the true path, with generosity of spirit...

John (USA): “Don’t carry grudges, realize that we all have broken parts, beware the ego…”

Rules that I’ve learned for a happy life:

1. Don’t carry grudges. They’re toxic and serve no useful purpose. Easier said than done… but you can achieve it. I use ‘tools’ to nudge me in right direction

2. Realize that we all have broken parts. We get what we get (or don’t) from our parents and they from theirs. We often pass on what we learned until we realize their limitations and ours.

Take the good from childhood and maturing experiences. Discard the bad and don’t repeat it. Again… easily said. Realize that we all carefully guard our innermost fears and feelings. So you have to be fearlessly honest with yourself.

3. Lastly… understand that in our society we are ‘ego driven’. That’s how we want people to view us… and usually it’s a series of facades.

Deep down we know we’re not who we pretend to be. Yet we still persist in building that ego. Meanwhile our self esteem suffers as inside we know who we really are.. warts and all.

When ego and false pride is high our self esteem is low. Honesty and fearless work reverses that scenario… so that they’re in balance.

It only took me 74 years to discover this formula.

Angie (Nepal): “I feel happy when I stop fighting existence, when I surrender to reality as it is… Consciousness is too precious to be wasted on self-pity, resentment, anger, and resignation…”

At 28, I’m just beginning to understand that there is more to life than its surface-level mundanities, which have occupied my anxious mind for many a restless night…

…At 28, I’m just beginning to understand that life is lived, not “thought.” Turns out that I spent my adolescence and most of my 20s in my head — which I’d give a rating of a 2/5 on TripAdvisor. At 28, I’m just venturing out into the world…

…I feel happy when I stop fighting existence, when I surrender to reality as it is, and when I get to choose how I respond to the ups and downs of life thanks to the clarity that results from these actions (or non-actions).

I feel happy when I’m not a prisoner of my mind, but just a person with a mind that helps me – for the most part — to navigate life in all its richness, spontaneity, beauty, and awe-inspiring “isness.”

I find meaning in appreciating the sublime beauty of a good piece of literature, music, and art. I find meaning in self-reflection because it helps me grow as a person. I find meaning in learning to like myself because, as the saying goes, I can’t expect to love people back the way they deserve to be loved until I learn to like myself…

My three ingredients for a hearty bowl of fulfillment… are self-knowledge, wisdom, and humility.

Self-knowledge comes first because I believe I would have missed out on so much had I not developed the habit of asking myself questions like:

  • Am I happy? Do I know where I want to go next? Am I going in the right direction?
  • Do I owe an apology to someone? Did I try to be kind to people whose paths crossed mine today?
  • Am I living in the moment or letting life pass me by?
  • Do I allow myself to do what makes me happy? Do I share myself with others?
  • Am I thinking about the kind of person I want to be or am I taking action to become the kind of person I want to be?

Wisdom has helped me understand that mistakes and “failures” are just as important as accomplishments and successes. Moreover, mistakes and “failures” contain invaluable gems of knowledge that are mine for the taking if only I quit feeling sorry for myself and start looking at my mistakes as learning opportunities.

Wisdom helps me not to lose myself on this side of the veil of illusion that separates the mundane from the abundance of joy, serenity, profundity, and love that life offers those who choose to peek behind the veil.

Wisdom helps me see how terribly short our lives are, and it helps me to remember to savor even the most ordinary of moments.

Humility has helped me realize that I’m not the worst person at the center of the universe. Humility has granted me the relief of living as a person among people, sharing joys, sorrows, desires, needs, accomplishments, fears, losses, and quirks with 8 billion of us (whoa!) on this planet.

…Humility has taught me that asking for help is not a weakness, crying is not embarrassing, joy multiplies when shared, sorrow loses its power when shouldered by a few rather than just one, childlike excitement is not “lame,” people think about themselves as much as I do about myself, we’re all slightly awkward in social situations, and consciousness is too precious to be wasted on self-pity, resentment, anger, and resignation.

Andrew (Netherlands): “No matter what hardship or personal crisis, there is a point where you go back to the beginning of your essence… and that will free you of whatever is a burden…”

This question I believe has as many answers as there have been civilizations. I believe different generations point towards similar ideas and ideals also from varying cultures. But are the answers the truth of what people genuinely believe or is it the structures given to us and fed to us by our peers?

For a fulfilling life can also be from the point of view of the person.

In the past it may be the house mother raising a family and seeing her children raised married and having her grandchildren, a feeling of contentment, a happiness that all has worked out, satisfaction, a fulfillment in life.

This cannot be said of everyone. On a spiritual plane could it perhaps be the passing of esoteric tests and achieving a level of understanding that was to enable a feeling of divine knowledge.

For me personally I have come to understand that no matter what hardship or personal crisis, there is a point where you go back to the beginning of your essence and then you discover your true name and that will free you of whatever is a burden; and then there is a fulfillment in the knowledge of knowing yourself deeply, on a truthful level. It is an innermost knowledge of self… Knowing therefore fulfilled.

Patty (USA): “Offer help, accept help, love with your heart — and your mind…”

When your house is on fire, it’s almost always best to step outside. Here, you can breathe clear air, which helps you make rational decisions while honoring the emotion of a deeply personal experience. Here, you can see the burning house as something to be salvaged — or let go.

Either way, you’ll want to ask for help from experts who will do their best to save the house if salvageable and to guide you against re-entering unless and until this home can provide the safe and welcoming shelter you deserve.

  • Offer help
  • Accept help
  • Love with your heart — and your mind

Ana (Switzerland): “What really has the power to pull me out of the uncharted territory of grief, loss, despair, loss of control, and powerlessness is agency…”

While I do believe some values are universal, I also think that humans always live in a concrete reality, under concrete circumstances…

What I mean by this is that for someone living in a dictatorship, political and individual freedom could be the most important component for leading a fulfilled life, while for someone living in a democracy, it could be gaining more self-control, volunteering, or perfecting a skill...

This is why what I am going to describe next are my personal values and beliefs, not an attempt at a normative, universal philosophical framework…

Throughout my experience I have come to realize that no matter the circumstances, these three ingredients, individually or combined, have helped me forge an authentic path forward, especially when no path seemed available:

1. Dynamic thinking

By dynamic thinking, I mean the human ability to reflect, evaluate, and shift perspectives. The willingness to challenge our own thought patterns, to value external input, the ability to learn, and to look for questions, answers, and solutions with an open mind…

Within the scope of dynamic thinking, the following ideas are central to my own philosophy for life:

  • the ability to truly, actively listen to the message someone is trying to convey (whether in person, through writing, music, art, etc.) as opposed to being satisfied with our own biases and predefined ways of thinking, ready to blurt out a preset response indiscriminately
  • the ability to cultivate a level of honesty with oneself, that borders neither on self-indulgence nor on self-hatred…
  • the earned knowledge that entire belief systems can and will come crashing down and that there is value in the hard labor of rebuilding them on a more honest, though uncomfortable, basis
  • the ability to apply delayed value judgments and not jump to conclusions driven by impulse and a lack of patience and understanding…

2. Agency

The second indispensable component of a fulfilled life, in my opinion, is agency. I don't use the term freedom on purpose, because I am profoundly scarred by the discussions and issues surrounding free will. So I'll use agency as a term that symbolizes a kind of freedom aware of its own limitations…

For human life to gain some kind of traction, I believe it is vitally important that we exert agency, make our own choices, and experience the short and long-term reality of these choices.

There is, in my opinion, nothing more formative than engaging freely with the world. It plays right into our desire to feel real, to gain existential traction. I don't believe it is possible to develop a sense of self, to know who we are, imperfect as that knowledge might be, without acting and choosing freely. Freedom is what justifies us to claim our place in the world…

What really has the power to pull me out of the uncharted territory of grief, loss, despair, loss of control, and powerlessness is agency. It's the realization that our will has an impact on our reality, no matter how minimal, slow, or unconvincing at first. It's there.

And we can use this will to make steps towards reframing experience and integrating it honestly and respectfully. And this lifts the hateful feeling of helplessness and powerlessness…

3. Alterity

I highly value self-reliance, self-efficacy, and personal self-determination. At the same time, however, I believe there can be no Self without the Other. Without the idea of Otherness.

Whether it is other people, other beliefs or thought systems, nature, or animals we need to relate to something outside ourselves in order to define and maintain our humanity…

And here I would like to bring in the topic of morality and our responsibility towards everything around us that is not us. In order to live a fulfilled life we must acknowledge and respect that which Iris Murdoch referred to as the reality of others. No matter which ethical system one tends to gravitate toward, we can't lead a fulfilled life without acknowledging the reality of the mysterious dimension that is the Other…

…So from where I stand right now, my philosophy is to do as little harm as possible and to try and live in a relationship of respect, warmth and curiosity with everything that is not me, while my own integrity and freedom are equally respected.

Harley (Ireland): “Close relationships, a fulfilling career, and a hobby/pastime that fully engages…”

My philosophy for life is to keep it as simple as possible, respect others (including Golden Rule), lifelong learning particularly related to self knowledge.

Lessons from life are: one has to find your own meaning in life (existential), happiness is fleeting so focus on eudaimonia (Aristotle), strive for individuation (Nietzsche, Jung).

3 key ingredients for a fulfilled life:

  • Close Relationships (‘Authentic Love’ per Kierkegaard)
  • A fulfilling career (aspect re individuation)
  • A hobby/pastime that fully engages (‘Flow’ moments)

Jacques (South Africa): “If I look at the people I admire most, is my personal philosophy compatible with theirs?”

I would add one question to your list:

“If I look at the people I admire the most, is my personal philosophy compatible with theirs?” In my case, three of my most-admired figures are C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, who all ‘happened’ to be Christians.

My personal philosophy: Epicureanism, with an uncertain dash of everything else (particularly humor, gratitude, and attention)

Some of you, while sharing your personal philosophies, asked me to share mine in return. The underwhelming truth is that my personal philosophy could be summed up by one word: uncertainty.

What sounds like paradise to me is the description of the good life offered by Epicurean philosopher Lucretius:

To avoid bodily pain, to have a mind free from anxiety and fear, and to enjoy the pleasures of the senses.

But in a world characterized by impermanence, the question is how we can possibly attain such a state consistently.

How can we free ourselves from anxiety and fear? How can we live good lives in a world filled with misery for so many? How can we establish peace of mind for ourselves without harming that of others?

It’s here I look beyond Epicureanism to greedily consume recommendations from all philosophies and thinkers, whose wisdom would not have endured had it not hit on some kind of truth or insight:

If I had to settle on three structures for a fulfilled life (assuming a background of political stability and individual liberty — which is a rather huge assumption), I would actually very much agree with those falsely attributed to Immanuel Kant (the actual source is unclear):

Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.

And if I had to select three qualities for a fulfilled life, I would settle on:

  1. Humor. Humor connects us and transforms our relationship to even the most difficult of events. Many of the best things in my life have their roots in humor and play.

  2. Gratitude. Gratitude conjures joy from the most humdrum of activities. Breathing fresh air, hearing the laughter of a loved one, watching light ripple over water.

  3. Attention. Not letting time pass me by, lost in anxious thought or mindlessness. Being attentive to sensations and feelings, to the world around me, to the needs and longings of others.

But, beyond these tentative suggestions, I know I have much to learn, and much left to experience that will no doubt challenge many of my deep-seated values and assumptions.

Perhaps making a virtue out of uncertainty — being ready and willing to adapt to new information — is a good bet, as is facing up to and accepting impermanence in all its forms.

But one thing I truly cherish, and hope I’ll never lose, is simply having the opportunity to discuss these questions and ideas with others. None of us are alone; we all exist together. Being in perpetual search of the good life with you all is a joy and a privilege — and something that, even if itself will never be fulfilled, makes life feel very fulfilling indeed.

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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